Sex and Gender 101

Students in Pittsburgh are settling into the new school year with an updated policy allowing them to use facilities that match their gender identity rather than their sex assigned at birth. If terms such as “gender identity,” “sex assigned at birth,” or “cis-gender” are unfamiliar, here’s your quick Sex & Gender 101 primer.

First, sex and gender are not the same thing. Biological sex refers to our physical makeup. It is determined by X and Y chromosomes, internal and external genitalia, and hormones (such as estrogen, progesterone, testosterone).

Our culture assumes that bodies are either “male” or “female.” But these components of biological sex actually combine to produce a wide range of bodies. For instance, intersex people might have ambiguous genitalia or combinations of chromosomes other than XX and XY. About one in every 2,000 babies born may not be clearly classified as solely male or solely female.

While our society sorts everyone into two categories and assigns one of two sex labels at birth, there are cultures around the world that acknowledge a third sex (or even more). For example, some Native American cultures recognize “Two Spirit” people.

As opposed to biological sex, the term “gender” refers to what our culture defines as masculine or feminine. It is both a culturally and historically specific understanding of how individuals should appear and behave. This means gender is not fixed: definitions of gender change from culture to culture and shift over time.

We can see this change with gender roles, which are a set of social expectations about what behaviors, clothing styles, careers, etc. are considered appropriate for individuals based on their sex assigned at birth. In some places and in some times, men might be expected to wear pants and be good at car repairs while women are expected to wear skirts and enjoy cooking. None of these things is biologically determined by a person’s genitalia, but is rather shaped by cultural expectations of gender.

Scholar Judith Butler famously explained that we perform our gender. In other words, we are constantly expressing our gender both consciously and unconsciously through our wardrobe choices, hairstyles, voice, body language, and more.

Our gender identity is how we label ourselves to reflect our own, internal sense of gender, which may or may not correspond to our sex assigned at birth. Cis-gender (pronounced “sis-gender”) people have a physical body and internal gender identity that align with their sex assigned at birth. This term is becoming more widely used, in part to acknowledge that not everyone experiences this alignment.

For example, a transgender or “trans” person has a gender identity or gender expression that is different from what our culture expects due to their sex assigned at birth. A transgender individual may or may not decide to transition, or change, their physical body. It’s important to remember that these terms are fairly broad, covering a wide range of gender identities, and that people must self-identify as trans or transgender in order for these labels to be appropriately and respectfully used to describe them.

Some people reject the gender binary in our culture of strictly male or female, and identify as neither, both, or somewhere else on a spectrum of gender. These individuals might prefer to use gender pronouns other than she/her/hers or he/him/his to describe themselves, such as the plural pronouns they/them/theirs. Some people might also refer to themselves as queer, genderqueer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, or non-binary.

These labels are sometimes used by others based on their perceptions of an individual’s gender expression that differs from expected gender roles. But, again, the important thing is to allow people to self-identify with their gender terms and to not attribute a gender or labels based on our perception of another person’s gender expression.

Finally, sex and gender should not be confused with sexual identity. Our sexual identity is what we label ourselves to reflect our “orientation,” or our own inner sense of who we are attracted to emotionally, romantically, and sexually.

You will often see the acronym LGBTQ+ or LGBTQIA. These letters represent different identities such as Lesbian (women who are emotionally, romantically, and sexually attracted to other women), Gay (men who are attracted to men), and Bisexual (people attracted to both women and men).

“Gay” used to be an umbrella term referring to all people attracted to the same sex, but as this privileges the male term, many prefer more inclusive language such as LGBTQ. Fewer people today use the term homosexual because of its historical association with medical terminology and, until 1973 in the field of psychology, the diagnosis of a mental disorder.

The T in LGBTQ stands for trans or transgender. Q stands for queer, which may be used by individuals who do not define themselves strictly as gay, lesbian, or bisexual or who prefer a looser term that does not require the naming of those they are attracted to. Queer has become a new umbrella term for many whose gender identity, expression, or sexual identity fall outside cultural expectations or who see gender as a spectrum.

The label was historically used as a negative term for gays and lesbians, but over the past thirty years or so, queer has been re-appropriated by activists as a positive term. However, some people both within and outside the LGBTQ community still view it as offensive. As with other gender and sexual identity terms, it is crucial to allow people to self-identity and to avoid affixing labels to others.

Q can also stand for questioning, or those who are still exploring or uncertain about their sexual or gender identity. I stands for intersex and A stands for asexual – those who do not feel sexual attraction, but may or may not feel emotional and romantic attraction.

If you’ve been paying attention, you will notice that the phrase LGBTQIA actually combines gender and sexual identities in one acronym. For example, Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual are sexual identities, while Trans is a gender identity, and Queer can be both a gender and a sexual identity.

The recent spate of trans-phobic “bathroom bills” around the country have inappropriately conflated gender and sexual identity. For example, a trans man who presents himself as male using traditional masculine-coded clothing, hairstyles, body art, etc. might choose to use a men’s locker room or restroom, as it corresponds with his gender identity. This person may or may not be attracted to men, just as other men in the room who were biologically assigned as male at birth may or may not be attracted to those sharing the facilities.

Under the guise of “protecting women,” the authors of such bathroom bills would actually have a trans woman expressing her gender as female return to using a men’s room where she might be far more likely to encounter harm. The new gender inclusive facilities policy passed by the Pittsburgh Public School Board of Directors reflects years of scientific evidence and gender scholarship, and lands squarely on the side of inclusivity, making our schools welcoming places for all of our students (and faculty and staff).

Still confused? Here’s a helpful way to remember the distinctions: biological sex is what is inside a person’s pants. Gender is what those pants are made of and what they look like. Sexual identity is what the person does with at least one other person when they’re not wearing pants. Bathrooms are for peeing in.


[Photo: Pittsburgh Public Schools board members from left to right, Sylvia Wilson, Terry Kennedy, Lynda Wrenn and Thomas Sumpter and the five other board members unanimously passed a nondiscrimination transgender policy in June 2016. Source: Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA]

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